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'Girlfight': Think 'Rocky' With a Feminist Hook

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2000

   


    Girlfight Michelle Rodriguez as a high school boxer and Jaime Tirelli as her coach in writer-director Karyn Kusama's first film, "Girlfight."
James Bridges – Screen Gems via Associated Press
"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog": The hand-lettered maxim, among many tacked to the peeling, sweat-splattered walls of a Brooklyn gym, certainly applies to "Girlfight," a scrappy independent film that packs the same emotional punch as "Rocky."

Like Rocky Balboa, the film's girl fighter is her own worst enemy – depressed, undisciplined and uncommunicative – but she, too, achieves personal growth through a physical regimen. The world of boxing, however, is only the backdrop for the teenage protagonist's rite of passage. Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) is sullen, confused and incapable of controlling the rage fueled by the contempt of her domineering father, Sandro (Paul Calderon).

In a film largely free of stereotypes, Sandro is a stock villain portrayed without nuance or sympathy. He may be an underemployed clod, but in most ways he could pass for any number of bullheaded movie dads. He expects Diana and her younger brother, Tiny (Ray Santiago), to live by his rules, no matter how irrelevant to their generation. To that end, he forces the bookish boy to take boxing lessons and treats Diana like a low-rent Cinderella.

Diana, a high school senior, is just one fight shy of expulsion when she discovers boxing and secretly begins training with Tiny's coach, Hector (Jaime Tirelli). At first she's seen as an intruder, but in time she wins wary acceptance from her male peers. And Hector, who initially tells her that girls just don't have as much power as boys, is reconsidering his sexism. After all, boxing has always been a great social leveler for minorities – the Irish, blacks, Hispanics – so why not women?

Karyn Kusama, the film's astute first-time writer-director, climbs over the ropes with Diana and her opponents. At least it seems as if the camera takes the punches, a frightening flurry of well-placed jabs.

Although the movie contains violence in context, it's neither excessive nor celebratory. There are no slow-motion showers of cinematic blood, no jaw-cracking sound effects. Kusama, however, doesn't back away from the realities of the sport. Diana goes home with a shiner and small consolation, while her adversary winds up with a split lip and a split decision. The verite of this small, grungy realm is enough for Kusama, who delivers the sweet with the science.

Although the story builds to an implausible gender-blind matchup between the heroine and another featherweight, Diana's transformation is sufficiently believable to survive the contrivance. Rodriguez, a gifted first-time actor, can glower up a storm and then, when she meets the right sparring partner (Santiago Douglas), melt like a frappe.

Blessed with the athleticism and cheekbones of pro basketball goddess Teresa Witherspoon, Rodriguez was built for the role. Douglas, a TV actor making his American film debut, provides strength and, yes, vulnerability as well as sinew and sex appeal as Diana's romantic interest.

Their love story nicely mirrors the feints and jabs of ordinary screen romances, only other lovers seldom end up clutching in the ring. "I love you," Diana whispers before she clobbers her honey with a heartfelt left hook. The relationship is a rocky one, but then it would have to be.

Oh, well, a kiss will make that boo-boo feel all better.

Girlfight (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language.

 

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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